To say that J.D. Kurtness’s debut novel, Of Vengeance, is a crime thriller would be somewhat misleading. True, the unnamed protagonist presents herself to the reader as a psychopath killer bent on revenge. Fresh-faced and forgettable, she appears as innocent as “farmers’ daughters advertising milk” or “girls on the packaging of anti-acne medication.” These wholesome comparisons work to establish the protagonist’s persona (she calls her face her “best alibi”) to others in her world, but for the reader – who’s privy to her actual thoughts – they hint at potential threats from other seemingly innocuous things hiding in plain sight. This isn’t, in the end, an attempt to solve or get away with a murder; instead, Of Vengeance hints at another layer of crime that forms the undercurrent of the novel. In deceptively simple prose, Kurtness mounts a poignant and timely argument about the danger of running headlong into the hands of technologies we don’t fully understand.
“I am a murderer,” the narrator says aloud to herself in front of the bathroom mirror each day. The sentence functions as a daily affirmation, her own version of CBT self-talk meant to boost her self- esteem. But there’s another reason for the ritual: she’s afraid of forgetting who she is. Her life of crime began by accident – at thirteen years old, she attempted to prank a classmate but wound up killing him instead. Surprised by how much she enjoyed the experience, she continues to experiment with various methods of revenge, starting with vandalized vehicles and progressing to premeditated murder. These acts are always aimed at those she deems deserving: an asshole SUV driver, an old man who doesn’t pick up his dog’s turds, the CEO of an energy company that’s destroying the environment. “My goal is to have fun while meting out a little justice here and there,” she says, “before we get to the ending where we all get swallowed up by the all-seeing omnipotent System.”
Translated by Pablo Strauss
Our protagonist is perceptive, especially when it comes to concepts larger than herself. She comments on the connection between the system’s increasing need for stimulation – more content, more data, more news – and how easily we simultaneously become numbed by it: “News is, by definition, a break in the continuity,” she says. “When people are constantly dying, and have been for generations, the media gets bored. And so do we.” There are some days she doesn’t need her daily affirmation to remind her who she is; in which case, “life is good, and [she] take[s] breaks.”
In the last ten pages of the book, the narrator seems to depart from all her previous rationale and caution – culminating in an unexpected rampage that I can only understand as a senseless act of boredom. Addicted to the intense stimulation they provide, she has become dependent on her little “breaks” to escape boredom; otherwise, she feels nothing at all.
The true horror in Of Vengeance lies in Kurtness’s ability to sway you to the protagonist’s side; more than once, I caught myself wholeheartedly agreeing with her worldview. Part of the reason she’s so relatable is that she’s not just a villain, she’s a victim as well. She makes her living as a translator, a profession that – thanks to Google’s translation algorithm, built on previous source translations uploaded online – will one day be “as obsolete as log driver and telegraph operator.” Sometimes, Kurtness seems to argue, corruption isn’t obvious; it can be disguised within the most innocent and innocuous-seeming of packages. And sometimes, you can be guilty for failing to ask questions or take action; you can be guilty simply for standing by and continuing to do nothing at all. mRb